Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Desecration or beauty?

A few weeks ago I was walking with my friend Maurice in the mountains of West Cork. As we dropped down along a ridge we were stopped in our tracks by what we saw in the remote valley before us. A rough road had been gouged along the valley wall, and strung out along the road were a half-dozen gigantic wind turbines, catching the Atlantic wind as it funneled up the valley.

It took me a while to sort out my feelings. Well, no, actually I never quite sorted them out. On the one hand, I was dismayed to see this wild place desecrated by technology. On the other, there was something majestic about the turbines, tall and graceful as they turned slowly in the wind, producing clean electricity.

Wind farms are springing up all over the west of Ireland, and the east too for all I know. Hilltops are covered with the sleek silver turbines. Whenever I see them, I am conflicted. Desecration or beauty?

Some places must be preserved, of course. One would not want to see wind farms in Yosemite Valley, on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or along the Cliffs of Moher. Or in the magical valley of Gouganebarra on the other side of the ridge we were walking. But it is also true that those places will only be preserved by human design. The entire face of the planet will inevitably be -- if it is not already -- a human artifact

We might want to agree with Henry David Thoreau, that "In wildness is the preservation of the world," but it is really the other way around. In civilization is the preservation of the wild. In civilization too is the hope or doom of the planet. Out great-grandchildren will live to see the face of the Earth turned into a giant machine for extracting energy from wind, wave and sun -- hilltops covered with turbines, deserts carpeted with photovoltaics and mirrors, seas afloat with generators powered by wave or tide.

"We have built a greenhouse, a human creation, where once there bloomed a sweet and wild garden," lamented conservationist Bill McKibben in The End of Nature. A greenhouse may not be a bad thing if its built with self-restraint and an eye for beauty. The decisions to be made are social and political, pitching a civilized conservation ethic against wild self-interest, scientific ecology versus consumerist greed, hope versus handwringing. We may need a new aesthetic, too -- an aesthetic that sees beauty in windmills turning majestically in a formerly wild valley.